How a Shellfish-Heavy Feast Helped Create Conservative Judaism in America

Jan. 18 2018

Last weekend, a Jewish group in San Francisco engaged in a reenactment of the so-called treyfa banquet that took place in Cincinnati in 1883. Held to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations—the predecessor to today’s Union of Reform Judaism—the original event received its nickname because of the variety of non-kosher (in Yiddish, treyf) food served there, which created something of a scandal. But reporting on the more recent festivities has gotten the facts of the original event wrong; Jonathan Sarna sets the record straight:

The original treyfa banquet . . . capped ceremonies aimed, ironically, at unifying American Jews. . . . It symbolized the longstanding goal of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, president of [America’s first rabbinical school] Hebrew Union College, to lead a broad, ideologically diverse coalition committed to strengthening American Judaism.

Unlike this month’s reenactment, the infamous Cincinnati banquet prepared for the 100 Jewish leaders served no pork at all. Many Reform Jews of that time believed that abstaining from pork sufficiently distinguished them from their non-Jewish neighbors. . . . So Jews avoided pork products, even if they consumed [non-kosher] seafood.

The many non-kosher foods that did appear on the menu of the lavish nine-course banquet—clams, crabs, shrimp, frogs’ legs, and so forth—were not . . . the product of careful planning and prearranged advertising. They resulted instead from carelessness and lack of proper oversight. The well-known Jewish caterer who planned the dinner took no account of the fact that traditionalists had been invited to the celebration and created a banquet like so many other lavish Jewish banquets held in his club—akin to non-Jewish banquets, minus the pork. . . .

Wise also knew the banquet was a blunder. After all, he himself kept a kosher home—his second wife, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, insisted upon it. But he was not the kind of leader who believed in making apologies. Instead, he lashed out against his critics, insisting that the dietary laws had lost all validity, and ridiculed them for advocating “kitchen Judaism.”

The treyfa banquet helped pave the way for the creation of a more traditional Jewish rabbinical seminary, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, [now the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism]. Once Wise abandoned the goal of “union” and cast his lot with more radical Reform Jews who repudiated Jewish dietary laws, those favoring a conservative approach to Jewish life moved to establish a more religiously traditional seminary to compete with Hebrew Union College.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: American Jewish History, American Judaism, History & Ideas, Jewish Theological Seminary, Kashrut, Reform Judaism

Iran’s Defeat May Not Be Immediate, but Effective Containment Is at Hand

Aug. 20 2018

In the 1980s, the U.S. pursued a policy of economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union that led to—or at least hastened—its collapse while avoiding a head-on military confrontation. Some see reasons to hope that a similar strategy might bring about the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Frederick Kagan, however, argues against excessive optimism. Carefully comparing the current situation of Iran to that of the Gorbachev-era USSR, he suggests instead that victory over Tehran can be effectively achieved even if the regime persists, at least for the time being:

What must [an Iran] strategy accomplish in order to advance American national security and vital national interests? Regime change was the only outcome during the cold war that could accomplish those goals, given the conventional and nuclear military power of the Soviet Union. Iran is much weaker by every measure and much more vulnerable to isolation than the Soviets were. . . . Isolating Iran from external resources and forcing the regime to concentrate on controlling its own population would be major accomplishments that would transform the Middle East. . . .

It is vital to note that the strategy toward the Soviet Union included securing Western Europe against the Soviet threat and foreclosing Soviet efforts to pare America’s allies, especially West Germany, away from it while simultaneously supporting (in an appropriately limited fashion) the Solidarity uprising in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not meaningful to speak of a victory strategy against Iran that does not include contesting Iranian control and influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while strengthening and hardening the Arab frontline states (including Oman and Qatar) against Iranian influence.

Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan—it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the U.S. can compel [Iran] to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle. Iraq is Iran’s Poland—the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The U.S. is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).

A long-term approach would focus on building a consensus among America’s allies about the need to implement a victory strategy. It would deter the Russians and Chinese from stepping in to keep Iran alive. It would disrupt the supply chain of strategic materials Iran needs to advance its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. And it would force Iran to fight hard for its positions in Iraq and Syria while simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy in every possible way. Such a strategy would almost certainly force the Islamic Republic back in on itself, halt and reverse its movement toward regional hegemony, exacerbate schisms within the Iranian leadership and between the regime and the people, and possibly, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime.

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Read more at Commentary

More about: Cold War, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Soviet Union, U.S. Foreign policy